Roger Ebert once said that “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” In other words: length is not indicative of quality, but together, the two get along just fine.
Few names are as ubiquitous with lengthy runtimes as Martin Scorsese, who, since the 1970s, has been making films that sometimes feel as if they’re still unfolding to this day (nine of his feature films, for instance, wrap up beyond the two-hour and forty-minute mark). By Ebert’s logic, of course, this is by no means a bad thing, as evidenced by the fact that at this point, pairing “Scorsese” and “masterpiece” in the same phrase is almost redundant. His latest narrative sprawl is The Irishman (also titled with less brevity and more bravado I Heard You Paint Houses). It clocks in at a weighty two hundred and ten minutes, making it his longest film. Luckily for The Irishman, for Ebert, and for us, it is also one of his very best.
That it has finally seen the light of day and done so to nearly universal favor is something of a relief. It suffered for years in development hell after Scorsese became interested in the source material (Charles Brandt’s book, also titled I Heard You Paint Houses), initiating in 2007 before losing priority and retiring to something of a back-shelf project. After years of screenplay revisions and cast assembly, however, production began a decade later in 2017. It was then announced that the film would be financed and distributed through Netflix, allowing the creative team the budget required to work with computer-generated de-aging technology. Doubtful speculation quickly arose: had Scorsese sold out? Was the man so vocal about the supremacy of the movie-theater experience catering to Netflix for the sake of digital effects? The 2018 release date drew nearer and nearer until it passed by altogether, with little updates from either Netflix or Scorsese himself. Suspicion arose that perhaps the project was in the ground for good.
But it was not. After years of gestation the thing finally emerged, and against all odds, it’s better than most had imagined it could be. It seems to exist and thrive almost in spite of itself. The runtime is massive, but far from unjustly. Every minute is both earned and necessary. Scorsese’s genre idiosyncrasies are not indulgent, nor do they condemn his past work. Instead, they complement it. Not only are the digital alterations that allow the cast to play themselves at age 30 or 40 or 80 revolutionary, but they offer a wholly unique and yet unseen vantage point to explore the ideas on The Irishman’s mind, of which there are aplenty. Elements that seem to destine the film for ridicule — or worse, impatience and dismissal — instead weave together to spin an epic, moving, painfully human legacy about the weight of past sins, the unstoppable march of time, and men who have made themselves free from the law of man trying desperately to reckon with the law of God. Everyone reaches the end, The Irishman says. But when you follow this kind of life, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. The longer you live, the longer your sins can haunt you.
It’s the life and sins of Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) that are portrayed, among others, in The Irishman. We flash between three different stages in his life: his early involvement in mob affairs under his friend Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and fiery union man Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), a road trip with unforeseen destinations taken in his late middle age, and his final days alone in a nursing home. The conclusion of the second segment is the climax of the film: the first three hours build to it, and the subsequent thirty are spent trying to come to terms with it. What makes the film so sad is that no one really can.
Those expecting a rise-and-fall gangster narrative akin to Scorsese’s GoodFellas or The Wolf of Wall Street will be satisfied to some extent, but the tone and intent of this film differs in several ways. The Irishman uses the thrilling glory and subsequent fall of one individual less as a narrative device than as an emotional one, and it’s all the stronger for it. I’ve always felt the Scorsese films that utilize the iconic gangster arc risk the appearance of being disingenuous — that the final moments of condemnation and justice in GoodFellas, for instance, are really only there in service of the first two hours. They’re the obligatory penance paid by Scorsese and us, his audience, because we secretly wish his characters would never be caught or pay for their crimes not because we genuinely care for them, but because their extravagant freedom brings us vicarious satisfaction. Here, however, the priority is reversed. The first two acts function in service of the last one so that the fall isn’t there to justify the rise — the rise is there so that we can mourn together over the fall.
Our editor joked that no review of a 2019 Martin Scorsese film would be complete without an analysis and judgment on his opinion toward Marvel movies (it’s correct, of course, but another place, another time and all that). His remark was made facetiously, but as it happens, I think he may have been on to something. Earlier this month, Scorsese published an opinion piece for the New York Times addressing the semi-controversy stirred up by his statements. In the article, he doesn’t rail against the dismal state of contemporary cinema or accuse those who disagree with him of illegitimacy. Instead, he lays out what he loves about the movies. What separates the product from the magic. What makes the silver screen shine. While comparing The Irishman to Captain Marvel would be a fruitless exercise, I think the piece offers a unique opportunity to judge his work against his own standards — to see if his money is where his mouth is, as it were.
The article is called “Martin Scorsese: I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain.” And explain he does. Cinema of his time was, as he defines it, “about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.” So how does The Irishman stack up against the loving boundaries of its creator? Scorsese gives us three facets of dramatic output an artist may use to communicate his intended vision — the aesthetic, the emotional, and the spiritual — and by which one may make and judge a film. All are of crucial importance, working in tandem to illuminate the strengths of the others and craft a work of art.
First is what Scorsese calls “aesthetic revelation”: using the sensory elements of a film to reveal its deeper truth. Scorsese and his director of photography Rodrigo Prieto shot the picture on a combination of RED digital (when de-aging effects were needed) and 35mm film (when they weren’t), using a variety of development techniques to reduce saturation and increase contrast as the film’s timeline ticks forward. This results in a warm, rich tone imbuing Frank Sheeran’s early years, only to gradually give way to a colder, muted palette. The de-aging visual effects work itself is perhaps the closest to perfection I’ve seen yet, serving the story at hand with elegant purpose. On the one hand, the facial features of mid-forties Sheeran and Hoffa and Bufalino look totally convincing; on the other hand, their posture and movement never allow us to entirely buy in. DeNiro’s eyes, especially, always seem to be watching the world through a thin film of emotion. Whether this was an unintended byproduct of the effects work or an intentional choice is irrelevant: it works either way. The end result is the appearance of young men who move with a weariness beyond their years, haunted even in their early days by the lives and fates that stretch out oppressively before them.
It doesn’t take long to recognize that The Irishman is concerned with authentically human matters, and by extension depicts and provokes deep emotion. Its subject matter is inherently weighty, but the film never stoops to manipulation or cheap tricks. It’s just true, and that’s enough.
From The Irishman’s opening shot — a steady tracking shot that drifts through the rooms and hallways of a nursing home before settling in front of an old Sheeran — the weight of mortality hangs over every frame. The first words of the film are Sheeran’s: “When I was young, I thought house painters painted houses.” The second bit refers to the slang for hitmen within the mob — their messy undertakings often left splatters of color on the surface adjacent to an unfortunate target’s head — but the first phrase echoes a longing for youth only attainable once you no longer have it. It’s fulfilled at the end by one of the last lines, also spoken by Sheeran: “You don’t know how fast time goes by until you get there.” The film begins and ends close to death, and, as Sheeran’s narration at this point will puncture much of the film, it never really leaves at any point in between. From beginning to end we are bookended by time, allowing us to appreciate the brevity of every moment even though Sheeran himself does not. This melancholy permeates the film even in its funniest moments: a running gag introduces various gangsters with title cards that show the date and cause of their deaths (with the exception of Anthony Giacalone, who was “well-liked by all” and “died of natural causes,” we are told all of them will suffer violent ends), and a hilarious dialogue regarding fish is tainted by the knowledge that terrible circumstances loom just around the corner.
The true emotional core of the film, however, is found in the arc of Frank Sheeran’s relationships with two people: Jimmy Hoffa and Frank’s daughter Peggy (played as a child and adult by Lucy Gallina and Anna Paquin, respectively). As the film progresses, it’s made subtextually clear that Sheeran must choose the life of the mob or the life of his family. His tragedy is that he never consciously chooses either, and so he ultimately loses both. Scorsese uses Peggy as a kind of silent judge throughout Frank’s life. As a young girl, she watches her father exact graphic vengeance on a grocer who kicked her out of his store, horrified by his proud, protective brutality. Later, she’s consistently framed in the background as she watches her father become less and less the kind of person you can truly love. As Frank draws closer to Hoffa, he drifts further away from his family. About halfway through the film, Hoffa dances with Peggy at a formal event while Frank watches from the edge of the room. Hoffa has, quite literally, taken her from him, and all he can do is watch and wonder where he went wrong.
Later, of course, he loses Hoffa too. It’s what the narrative structure of the entire film has been building towards all along, this terrible decision in which he really has no choice. The buildup is nothing short of agonizing for Frank and for us (in these preceding moments, DeNiro is giving a performance on par with the greatest I’ve ever seen). When the time comes it’s quick, brutal, and the furthest thing from glamorous, an ironic fulfillment of unintentional prophecies. “I’ll always stand right behind you, Jimmy,” Frank tells him at one point. And as he shoots him, he does. Hoffa’s first words to Frank in the film are, “I heard you paint houses.” The last thing Frank does to him covers the walls in his blood.
It’s in the film’s final stretch that Scorsese’s trademark strains of Catholic guilt creep into view. His enemies gone, his friends dead, his family estranged, Frank asks Peggy in desperation, “Is there anything I can do to make it up?” There isn’t, of course. If she is a God-like figure of judgement, she is not a forgiving one — but what human could be? We see Frank as he nears the end. He buys himself a casket in a pitiable attempt to maintain some semblance of control. He meets with a priest who questions the guilt he feels over his past sins, but the closest Frank comes to a true confession is when he admits, “I didn’t really know his family.” He’s talking about Hoffa’s, saying that he never contacted them again after killing Jimmy, but perhaps he’s also admitting as explicitly as he can about his relationship with his own, as well. Statues of the Virgin Mary sit everywhere throughout his nursing home, but spiritual revelation is painfully evasive. In the last scene, Frank’s priest tells him it’s almost Christmas. “Well, I ain’t going nowhere,” Frank tells him. Hope is a young man’s game.
The film ends with the The Five Satins’ “In The Still of the Night,” the song that begins the film and punctuates it throughout. It is his last cry to his daughter, to God, to anyone still alive to listen. Not very many, as it turns out.I remember That night in May The stars were bright above I’ll hope and I’ll pray To keep Your precious love So before the light Hold me again With all of your might In the still of the night